Lyon is like an onion: peel back the outer skin of iconic landmarks such as Fourvière, Place des Terreaux and Cathédrale St. John, and you’ll discover there’s far more to the city than you first thought. Take the time to explore the quirks of its diverse neighbourhoods, glimpse some of the city’s famous fresques and zigzag across the city using its network of traboules, and you’ll be richly rewarded. If it takes your fancy, you can even play at being Mary from Frances Hodgson Burnett’s timeless classic, The Secret Garden. It’s one of the city’s best-kept secrets, and is rarely mentioned in guidebooks – at least, it wasn’t in either of mine!
I only learnt of the Jardin Rosa Mir a week or so before leaving Lyon, thanks to a tip-off from Olivier while we were out hiking. Fortunately, there was just enough time to squeeze in a visit – no mean feat given the limited opening hours! From Grande Rue de la Croix Rousse, all that belies the existence of this little gem is a small square sign on the inside wall of a narrow passageway leading away from the main street. Venture up the back alley and you’ll come to a small, fairly nondescript entrance; beyond this lies the treasure.
I’m not the first, and probably won’t be the last, to say that it reminded me of Le Palais Idéal, located eighty-odd kilometres south of Lyon in Hauterives. Each wall and column was inlaid with seashells: oyster shells, clam shells, scallop shells. (According to the information provided in the garden, the shells all came from restaurants in Lyon and meals its creator ate with family and friends in the city.)
The Jardin Rosa Mir is the work of Jules Senis, an artisan tiler and bricklayer who fled Spain during the Spanish Civil War and settled in Lyon. He was ill for some years, during which he vowed to build a garden should he survive his illness, which, evidently, he did. His garden was a labour of love, taking him twenty-five years to create, and is dedicated to his mother, Rosa Mir Mercader. After his death, the City of Lyon took ownership of the garden, to ensure that it wouldn’t fall into disrepair.
Given the bustling main street was but a few metres away, it was remarkable just how peaceful the garden was. Classical music played in the background; if you’re struggling to find the entrance, listen out for the music and let that guide you there. People came and went, but it never felt crowded.
Pottering around the garden, I took in the seashell patterns in the walls, the colourful flowers and the neat rows of scallop shells. I’m a huge fan of cacti, so was delighted to see so many cacti and agave plants flourishing in the sun.
Before you go, don’t forget to take the stairs up to the viewing platform for an aerial view of the garden. It’s beautiful at ground level, but awe-inspiring from above.